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ANALYSIS By Mike Hudson

Readers of the daily Niagara Gazette are now well familiar with the story concocted by city officials concerning the history of the Underground Railroad and, more specifically, Harriet Tubman, in what is now known as the city of Niagara Falls.

Gazette scribe Rick Forgione did a great job of retailing it just last week, in a story about the city putting up $350,000 in casino money annually to support something called the Underground Railroad Heritage Commission. "According to historians, abolitionist Harriet Tubman guided about 300 slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s from Maryland to Canada, making the last stretch over the former Suspension Bridge, now the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge in the city," Forgione wrote.

The question that immediately arises is, "What historians?"

A Niagara Falls Reporter survey of scholarly literature dealing with Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in recent months shows scant, and possibly no evidence that Tubman ever set foot in what is now Niagara Falls, although the Niagara River crossing was indeed an important part of the journey for some escaped slaves.

There are two biographies of Harriet Tubman generally acknowledged by scholars as definitive, Catherine Clinton's 2005 "Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom" and Kate Clifford Larson's 2004 "Bound For The Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of An American Hero."

Clinton's book doesn't contain the name "Niagara" at all, while Larson's includes a scant four brief mentions, only one of which actually places Tubman on a "suspension bridge" across the Niagara River.

Taken together, the two volumes consist of 736 pages of dense, scholarly text. One fleeting mention of Tubman crossing the Niagara River on a bridge would seem to be the slimmest of reeds on which to hang a case for the association between her and what is now the city of Niagara Falls.

Indeed, the old Suspension Bridge, which crossed the river near where the Whirlpool Bridge stands today, wasn't even opened until 1855, a full five years after Tubman began her Underground Railroad activities and six years before she ended them.

And a map contained in Wilbur H. Siebert's monumental 1898 study, "The Underground Railroad, From Slavery to Freedom" shows routes ending at Buffalo, Rochester and Oswego, N.Y., but nothing at Niagara Falls.

To complicate matters further, another bridge -- at the site of today's Lewiston-Queenston Bridge -- was also called Suspension Bridge. Built in 1851, four years prior to the Suspension Bridge in what is now Niagara Falls, it was later wrecked by wind. Most authorities give the date of its collapse as February 1864, but one Niagara Falls history Web site, Thunder Alley, gives the date as February 1854. Both dates would coincide with Tubman's Underground Railroad activities, and -- as anyone who's driven over the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge can attest -- the falls are clearly visible from that vantage point as well.

In a February 2009 paper prepared for Niagara University and the city by historians William H. Seiner and Thomas A. Chambers, the authors ultimately conclude that the "suspension bridge" in question was indeed the one predating the current Whirlpool Bridge, basing their conclusion solely on the 1854 date of the Lewiston bridge's collapse as opposed to the 1864 date.

Why they did this is uncertain, since an article in the Feb. 3, 1864 edition of Niagara Falls Gazette describes the event, which occurred on Feb. 1 of that year. Since the lone dated Harriet Tubman crossing on the "suspension bridge" allegedly took place in 1856 or 1857, the question of whether the Lewiston suspension bridge was blown down in 1854 or a decade later in 1864 becomes central.

The 1864 Gazette article, entitled "Partial Destruction Of The Lewiston Suspension Bridge," reads as follows: "A portion of the flooring and other wood-work of the Lewiston Suspension Bridge was blown down during the gale Monday forenoon. It seems that the long guys had been cut during the late ice jam to prevent injury to the structure and thus its strength to withstand a gale was much weakened.

"The wind swept through the gorge on Monday with terrific force and swayed the bridge so that some of the cross timbers, near the centre were loosened from their fastenings, and fell, of course carrying the floor with them. A large portion at each end, remains without material injury. The extent of the damage -- financially -- we have not yet learned, but we judge from what we hear that it may be about $10,000. The bridge was built in 1852 and cost not far from $40,000. It will doubtless soon be repaired and in use."

The contemporary Gazette article stands as indisputable proof that suspension bridges existed at the both present-day sites of the Whirlpool and the Lewiston-Queenston bridges in 1856 or 1857, the years when Tubman was supposed to have made her crossing.

The Seiner-Chambers paper also raises some serious doubt about the number of escaped slaves actually led to freedom by Tubman.

"While Tubman is regarded as the legendary 'Moses of Her People,' the precise numerical impact of her liberation efforts remains in question," the paper states. "As the historian Milton C. Sennett has written, 'the traditional belief that Tubman rescued three hundred individuals during nineteen trips cannot withstand historical scrutiny.'"

Why the Gazette clings to the imaginary 300 number is anyone's guess. And repeatedly asserting as fact that the suspension bridge in question was located on the site of today's Whirlpool Bridge, when the paper's own archives contain evidence showing it could just as well have been the suspension bridge in Lewiston, constitutes lazy reporting and gullibility at its worst.

Texts on the Underground Railroad in general do little to add to Niagara Falls' luster. According to Fergus Bordewich's "Bound For Canaan, The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement," when William Weld founded the Niagara County Anti-Slavery League, he did so in Lockport. And a reference about driving escaped slaves across the frozen Niagara River states that the crossings took place in Buffalo.

The ferry across the Niagara between Buffalo and Ft. Erie was also a popular route. Again, there is not a single reference to a crossing made in what is now Niagara Falls.

In George Hendrick's "Fleeing For Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad As Told by Levi Coffin and William Still," a compendium of stories actually told by former slaves to two of the more famous Underground Railroad "station masters," Niagara Falls and Suspension Bridge again escape without mention.

In "Underground Railroad in New Jersey and New York," the definitive work on the subject, author William J. Switala lists at least seven men who aided fugitive slaves in Lockport, and states that they were in charge of a region that stretched from Black Rock, north of Buffalo, to Youngstown in Niagara County. He states that the road to freedom in the Niagara region included regularly scheduled ferryboats leaving from Buffalo, Black Rock, Lewiston and Youngstown.

All in all, Switala mentions the name "Niagara" 28 times, nearly all in reference to the Niagara River or the "Niagara Region." Harriet Tubman is mentioned six times in the book, in reference to Auburn, Peekskill and Utica, N.Y., and St. Catharines, Ont., but not in connection with Suspension Bridge or Niagara Falls.

Along the Niagara Frontier, the Michigan Street Baptist Church has long been thought of as the ultimate repository of knowledge for all things concerning the Underground Railroad here.

Their Web site lists numerous "possible" Underground Railroad sites in Buffalo, Lewiston, Williamsville, Eden, Orchard Park, Lockport, Lancaster, East Aurora, Cheektowaga and Pekin, pointedly not mentioning Niagara Falls at all.

In sum, research into the question of whether Harriet Tubman ever led any escaping slaves through what is now the city of Niagara Falls reveals that she might have been here on a single occasion. Or she might not have.

The assertion that she led 300 slaves to freedom over the suspension bridge at what is now the site of the Whirlpool Bridge in Niagara Falls is wishful thinking at best, a deliberate distortion of fact designed for monetary gain through the promotion of phony tourism at worst.

The $350,000 earmarked annually for the Underground Railroad Commission is in addition to renovation work that will turn the first floor of the Old Customs House into an "Underground Railroad Interpretive Center" as part of an imagined new city train station backers say will cost federal, state and local taxpayers another $40 million.

Former city administrator Bill Bradberry, who serves on the commission, said that more research is needed.

"I think some of the money needs to go to more actual research," he said. "In fact I am asking Niagara University to consider setting up an institute for the study of the Underground Railroad and abolitionism in Western New York and Canada."

A neighborhood park, on Main Street and Ontario Avenue in front of the Wrobel Towers apartment building, is also planned. The centerpiece of the park would be a statue of Tubman, along with a small waterfall and pond, a gazebo and stone walls and gateways. No cost estimates of building the park have yet surfaced.

The sparkplug in all of this has been Kevin Cottrell, a city employee who is on a leave of absence from his real job as a State Parks grants specialist. Cottrell reportedly earns $75,000 annually to promote the idea of Niagara Falls being an important stop on the Underground Railroad, a job that dovetails nicely with his private business, Motherland Connextions, which makes its money selling tours of allegedly important Underground Railroad sites in the area.

While it's been done clandestinely in the past, Cottrell is likely the only employee in the history of the city whose official job description consists largely of figuring out ways to use public money to promote his own private business interests.

Bradberry thinks it's time to settle the question once and for all.

"It's time we get the facts straight on this," he said.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com September 29 2009